2014 began with a significant amount of heartbreak for White Wolf fans. CCP cancelled the development of the World of Darkness MMORPG, which had suffered from “a long and troubled expensive development cycle”, as Ben Kuchera wrote in a piece for Polygon last year. What had started out with a bang and a whole lot of hope limped along with a few token mentions in this con or that news article, and then ultimately ended with a whimper. Then this happened, and – excuse my French – World of Darkness babies like myself fucking love you for it, Paradox Interactive. If they manage to bring the games back in a form that speaks to a rather large demographic of the geek community, maybe it’ll get people interested in the tabletop systems that started it all.
Some of you might be wondering why this is kind of really important. Most of the people who have heard of tabletop games around these parts are more familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, and from what I’ve noticed, World of Darkness in any of its incarnations isn’t exactly the first system that people pick. I feel that there are a number of reasons for this, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that Dungeons & Dragons is better. (Yes, I said it. Fight me.) Instead of focusing on that, however, I’m going to discuss why I think WOD is a great system to try out, and why I feel that it’s incredibly important within the context of the history of tabletop roleplaying.
World of Darkness was the original Yin to D&D’s Yang.
Before we got Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the fancy, streamlined editions that followed, D&D was less a tabletop roleplaying game and more like a war game gone dungeon crawler. Players like me remember how it used to take up an entire day and then some to make a single character because of all the number crunching, and that doesn’t include the manual reading that took place before character generation. One combat scene, if you were very, VERY lucky, took 3-6 hours to resolve. There’s a reason why games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights had pretty awesome algorithms for stats and how they translated into the gameplay: D&D popularized that sort of system, and had all of the mechanics you needed to simulate a fight. However, it was ALSO the reason why a large group of tabletop gamers just couldn’t get into it.
While D&D’s tabletop experience and the individual narratives of its GMs were, by default, subordinate to the system, White Wolf’s systems attempted to do the exact opposite: they built the mechanics in their rulebooks around a “Storytelling System”, and emphasized that their rules were meant to be subordinate to the narrative experience. This often came at the sacrifice of rules that made sense, and it’s rather obvious to more experienced tabletop gamers that the teams behind a lot of White Wolf’s rulebooks did not extensively playtest the stuff they released. Nevertheless, WOD catered to the demands of players who didn’t feel like being human calculators, or wanted to run a game that was less about fighting and more about telling a story. More streamlined systems have since come out, but I think it’s safe to say that WOD started a trend that persists to this day.
World of Darkness built entire universes specifically geared towards horror stories.
Hands down, White Wolf games are THE go-to universes for gamers who are looking for an urban horror experience. The theme of each campaign is specific to a kind of supernatural creature. The one that most people are familiar with is Vampire, especially since there was a television series loosely based off of the universe back in the day, and it had an action RPG back in 2004. Their other mainstays were Mage and Werewolf, but the universe later grew to include specific systems for Faeries, Hunters, and a system for the World of Darkness itself for anybody who wanted to build a mystery story or a survival horror game using squishy human beings (adult or otherwise, as World of Darkness: Innocents is a thing). They later did their own take on Frankenstein-like creatures in Promethean, on Demons, and on Mummies. They also reimagined obscure lore completely, with a prime example being Sin-Eaters.
Every one of these campaigns used the d10 system that White Wolf had developed. Each campaign, however, built their storytelling systems around a central theme, and each central theme was based on the struggle for one’s soul. Difficult situations change a man, just how the very power to move the universe could corrupt a Mage, or one’s hunger for blood could compromise the lingering memories of what it meant to be human for a Vampire. In that sense, White Wolf took what makes the best horror stories memorable, and made worlds for people to play in.
…And it also comes in three different flavors of crunchy.
WOD can be divided into three groups: Classic World of Darkness, New World of Darkness, and World of Darkness: The God Machine Chronicles (GMC). cWOD (also known as Old World of Darkness) was White Wolf’s first inception with the least amount of proper playtesting but the richest original flavors for each of their systems. nWOD streamlined things significantly, and functions more like an open toolbox for Storytellers who really enjoy WOD itself but want to make their own stories instead of relying on a “main plot” that was set up by the universe itself. GMC is the new kid on the block, and it combines an even more streamlined d10 system with new stories to explore, and some elements that made cWOD crazy fun.
Overall, if you want to play a game full of gritty, gothic horror tropes and frightening characters, play cWOD. If you’ve got a creepy tale of your own and just need a set of rules to make it happen, check nWOD out. If you want something that neatly achieves both of those objectives, go for GMC – and join me as I wait with bated breath for the rest of Onyx Publication’s systems to come out.
White Wolf’s stuff is already fun to read on its own.
In the same way that D&D books are treasure troves of inspiration for writers and artists of all flavors of fantasy, White Wolf’s storytelling systems are the result of countless of hours of research into the occult and the supernatural. Some of the expansions, in fact, go into specific historical periods, or offer lengthy discussions on the psychology of supernatural creatures. Furthermore, each campaign has miles long source lists of the academic texts, books, comics, animated series, television shows, movies, and games that the teams went through in order to come up with something wholly their own. Their reimaginings of supernatural creatures, in fact, are oftentimes more interesting than some of the stuff that we find on the market today.
Every chapter in a White Wolf rulebook also starts with some fiction that explores the universe – a little disruptive, perhaps, if you’re just out to understand the systems, but always good to look back to if you’re in need of new creepy things to read. cWOD, in fact, has a number of novels and short story collections floating around. Onyx Publications is also upping the ante on the hype of the new systems by releasing some fiction of its own.
If for nothing else, check the books out for their references. You won’t be disappointed.
World of Darkness is Philippines-friendly.
The Philippines gets more than just a token mention in some of White Wolf’s books. Vampire has an entire chapter devoted to aswang in one of its expansions. Our country is also cited in Geist for our peculiar concept of pakikisama and how it applies for Sin-Eaters.
Outside of these nice, Pinoy Pride™ boosting anecdotes, a lot of White Wolf’s systems are ideal for Pinoy tabletoppers. In the same way that Canadians have their own personal wild forest animal stories, Filipinos have their personal aswang and creepy encounters. Most people in our country also unconsciously acknowledge the existence of the supernatural, speaking as casually of dream visits from dead relatives and healing spells from albularyo as we do of the weather or taxes.
Call me biased, but I believe that WOD was kind of really made for us. It won’t take much for a Storyteller to adjust the flavor for a Filipino setting either.
If you’re still on a horror trip from Halloween, digital copies for oWOD and nWOD are available online, and their company also produces hard copies of their books on demand. The newer books by Onyx Publications (like Mummy, Demon, and The God Machine Chronicles itself) are also up for grabs too.